Many years ago, I saw a film called “Camp Thiaoye”. It was a tragic tale about African Senegalese soldiers who fought for the French against the Germans, and returned home to French-controlled Senegal in 1944. The men discover that once back home, they are not heroes to the French colonialists, but just another bunch of second-class natives, to be despised and humiliated. The Senegalese soldiers eventually revolt, only to be crushed by French tanks.
I was reminded of Camp Thiaroye when I read Stephanie McCrummen’s Washington Post piece about Africans in the former Belgian Congo, who were drafted at gunpoint into the Belgian army during World War II, and then found themselves fighting against the Italians in Ethiopia, embroiled in a conflict between white men that seemed to have little to do with them and that they did not understand. Bullets spared neither black nor white, but while the whites could count on pensions and disability payments for the rest of their lives, the native levies got nothing.
It’s amazing how much of world history has been written by colonial cannon fodder. The bulk of the Roman Empire’s forces were auxiliaries who didn’t enjoy Roman citizenship. In the 19th Century, the British armies that conquered Africa and Asia were themselves largely made up of poor, dispossessed Irish recruits (at one point, there were more Irish than English soldiers in the British Army). The U.S. military largely barred African-Americans from combat out of the belief that they couldn’t fight (or fear of what they might do to their oppressors if given guns), but African-Americans loaded the ships and drove the trucks that supplied the American forces in Normandy and Iwo Jima.
But second-class soldiers are finally getting their day. African-Americans who battled the Germans and Jim Crow have received long-overdue recognition. For almost 200 years, perhaps the best troops in the British army have been the legendary Gurkhas, small but ferocious fighters recruited from Nepal (where a hundred applicants compete for every slot). But they were paid less than white soldiers, they’re still fighting a legal battle to receive equal pensions with British soldiers, but at least they they have been given the right to settle in Britain in 2004.
It’s sad how often poor, second-class colonial soldiers were used to subjugate other poor peoples, often for no more reward than a bit of extra food and money. A relative handful of British soldiers could never have controlled India without the help of native armies. I’ve even heard Canadians complain that the British used them as cannon fodder for the risky, disastrous landing at Dieppe.
But the real tragedy is that colonial troops could neither expect thanks from their masters or from their own people, even when they fought the good fight. Defeating Hitler was a noble goal, and some 70,000 Irishmen from the Republic of Ireland volunteered to fight in the British armed forces – but it was not something they dared brag about back in Ireland. The British forces that battled the Japanese in the Burmese jungle were largely Indian. Yet after the war, India chose to honor Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army, which fought for Japan (as if Imperial Japan would have treated Indians any better than they did the Chinese).
The Senegalese veterans in the Washington Post piece recall that once they were in combat, they were treated fairly well. African-Americans in Vietnam remarked that racism was not an issue on the front lines. Bullets don’t distinguish between color.